TCS Daily


Here Come the Bio-Vikings!

By Waldemar Ingdahl - December 20, 2005 12:00 AM

A new Swedish scientific expedition will invite accusations of biopiracy -- using and patenting genetic or biological resources without the consent of the country of origin -- from some environmentalists. But this group of would-be biovikings could prove as beneficial to our modern world, by forcing us to resolve an important issue, as were their Viking forebears with their exploring and trading.

The expedition ship Götheborg, a replica of an 18th century ship, left the port city of Gothenburg on October 2, headed for Shanghai via Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia. The expedition commemorates the Swedish East India Company and the work of the father of modern ecology, Carl Linnaeus. The researchers from the oceanographical and zoological institutions at Gothenburg university hope to recreate the famous scientific voyages of Linnaeus' students, collecting biological samples and sending them back to Sweden.

But it is unlikely that scientific research like Linnaeus' could be accomplished again today, with the issue of biomaterials such a hot political topic. When researchers request permits to collect biological samples they are often turned down by many governments in the southern hemisphere, which have passed strict laws against biopiracy. In fact, the Swedish ship might risk being boarded by a Brazilian warship when approaching the port of Recife, as protection of genetic resources fall under the jurisdiction of the department of defense in Brazil.

The Swedish expedition calls attention to a very serious threat to further scientific progress: the damaging consequences for biotechnical, agricultural and pharmaceutical research resulting from the current stalemate in the international negotiations on genetic resources.

When this debate began in the 1970s with a worry over the loss of genetic diversity in agriculture, few had anticipated the development of biotechnology. That led to the gradual acceptance in the international community of farmers' rights, namely that farmers and rural communities -- because of their traditional development, preservation, and knowledge of crops -- should be recognized in their rights to the materials. As this was often linked to demands for government-backed redistribution of agricultural land to small farmers, the fact that many of the areas where our domesticated plants originate are situated in the southern hemisphere, and that countries in the southern hemisphere possess the greatest biodiversity in the world, there was a lot of agreement that the interests' of farmers in developing nations would be best served by strictly limiting access to genetic materials.

Back then, many overestimated the opportunities offered by biomaterials used in the still relatively undeveloped biotechnology sector -- with very profitable applications in agriculture, medicine and so on. There was talk of the "green gold" that soon would provide significant new income to developing countries. The argument was made that these countries would need incentives for protecting their biodiversity by being able to charge the West extensively for the right to use biomaterials.

At the UN's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed and has now been ratified by 176 nations. As well-intentioned as the CBD treaty might have been, it severely restricted the ability of researchers to collect biosamples, as it forbids the collection on another state's territory "subject to prior informed consent" of that state.

Parallel to this was the development in intellectual property, through the introduction of patents created originally to protect industrial hardware and not biological materials. This restricted the previously unlimited access and trade in genetic information and genetic materials.

The expectations were not met, though, for two reasons: the slower than expected development of biotechnology, and the fact that the use and development of genetic materials require a scientific expertise and commercial infrastructure that is often lacking in these countries.

The treaty does not make any distinctions between the collection of biomaterials for scientific or commercial purposes, a fact that has become a problem for many universities and researchers. The Götheborg cannot count on any special privileges, and the administrative process for gathering biosamples for scientific purposes in Brazil and India could take a year and a half.

Recently Craig Venter, the man whose research sequenced the human genome, stepped in to help the Götheborg get the permits.

With his famous expedition on his yacht, The Sorcerer II, he has himself been updating the great scientific voyages of the 18th and the 19th centuries. His much discussed collection of biosamples in the Galapagos Islands has given him a lot of experience of dealing with governments in these matters. Venter's assistance is most welcome, but his experience also highlights the problem.

Venter managed to get the permits by promising the Ecuadorian government not to patent the raw microbes he found. Environmentalists still claimed that his permits to export samples were not properly authorized, and also claimed Venter could still genetically modify the microbes and then patent the engineered life-forms.

The kind of bureaucracy makes the collection of materials costly, and makes access unfairly distributed to those institutions with the right contacts in foreign governments. It also makes it difficult for researchers to predict what research will be accepted. In the long run it will increase the costs of research and business and seriously hamper innovation in an area that is quickly gaining in importance.

There are forecasts that soon 40 percent of all world trade will be products and process that are somehow related to biotechnology (source: "Makt och tillträde- offentliga sektorn, biologisk innovation och genetiska resurser" by Carl-Gustaf Thornström, Associate Professor, Swedish Biodiversity Centre at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala.) In such a world, property rights need to be more clearly established and defined in this area. Approaching the issue in a piecemeal fashion in the international community will probably fail. Ecological concerns, diplomatic relations, commercial, legal, cultural and scientific issues are interwoven in a debate that includes government institutions, the research community, the private sector and civil society (including some very preservationist NGOs). Add to this a general lack of trust between the US and the developing nations, with the EU somewhere in the middle.

To enable and preserve the access, conservation and utilization of genetic resources there should be a commitment to a multilateral system, including the highly politicized issue of maintaining gene banks for future use. This would benefit the people of developing nations, as the present situation is not favorable to them either; they cannot gain the full benefits of their resources.

Hopefully, when the Götheborg enters the port of Recife at New Year it will spark this much needed debate.

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